To understand the significance of breathing, let me first share a story, which I read in Swami Vivekananda’s text on Raja Yoga, and heard at Paramhansa Yogananda’s YSS center.
There was once a minister to a great king. He fell into disgrace. The king, as a punishment, ordered him to be shut up in the top of a very high tower. This was done, and the minister was left there to perish. He had a loving wife, however, who came to the tower at night and called to her husband at the top to know what she could do to help him. He told her to return to the tower the following night and bring with her a long rope, some stout twine, pack thread, silken thread, a beetle, and a little honey.
Wondering much, the good wife obeyed her husband, and brought him the desired articles. The husband directed her to attach the silken thread firmly to the beetle, then to smear its horns with a drop of honey, and to set it free on the wall of the tower, with its head pointing upwards. She obeyed all these instructions, and the beetle started on its long journey. Smelling the honey ahead it slowly crept onwards, in the hope of reaching the honey, until at last it reached the top of the tower, when the minister grasped the beetle, and got possession of the silken thread. He told his wife to tie the other end to the pack thread, and after he had drawn up the pack thread, he repeated the process with the stout twine, and lastly with the rope. Then the rest was easy. The minister descended from the tower by means of the rope, and made his escape.
In this body of ours the breath motion is the “silken thread”; by laying hold of and learning to control it we grasp the pack thread of the nerve currents, and from these the stout twine of our thoughts, and lastly the rope of Prana, controlling which we reach freedom. This is a key part of Raja Yoga practice.
Pranayam, which is one of the limbs of the eight fold (Astang) yoga as taught by Patanjali, refers to controlling the Prana or the life force. We often think of Pranayam as breath, but it is not breath, and just related to it.Prana flows in the nadis (channels). 3 most important Nadis are Ida on the left (also called lunar), the Pingala on the right (or solar). Sushumna is the center nadi or channel.
You may ask What is Prana?
Prana is the cosmic vibration that underlies all manifestation. It is through the pulsations of cosmic prana that consciousness becomes matter. The Prana is the vital force in every being and thought is the finest and highest action of Prana.
So Pranayama is not breathing, but controlling that muscular power which moves the lungs.
Many pranayama techniques are designed to cleanse the nadis, to allow for greater movement of prana.
Anulom/Vilom is one example of such a pranayama as which is done for purification.
To summarize we use
(a) Breathing to control/observe
(b) Nerve Currents in our body, through which we control/observe the
(c) Thoughts/Mind, through which we control/observe the
Here are references to few key breathing based methods/meditations that can help us
1.Focus on Breath to improve concentration: Simply watch your breath, and just focus on inhalation and exhalation. Do not try to control the breath and just be a passive observer. Reference – Om Swami ji’s article
2. Deep breathing to overcome anxiety and anger. Here is a Guided Black Lotus meditation on Breath here.
3. Anulom/Vilom, Bumblebee (Bhrambri) – Reference – Om Swami ji’s Kundalini course here
4. Yogic Breathing technique of Vase Breathing. Reference – Om Swami ji’s Meditation course here.
5. Hang Sau or Ham Sa or Soham Breathing meditation. Reference videos here, and here.
6. Anapana Meditation (first step for Vipassana) – Reference video here.
“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever the mind becomes scattered use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.” Thich Nhat Hanh
To close, as Swami Vivekananda says “An ounce of practice is worth a thousand pounds of theory”, so go ahead and practice a breathing technique daily.